JERUSALEM, July 19 (JTA) As thousands of antidisengagement activists gathered in the town of Netivot, vowing to march to a Gaza Strip settlement bloc in defiance of Israeli authorities, a young corporal waited alone for a bus in the nearby city of Ashkelon. Fingering an orange ribbon, the symbolic color of the group that opposes the Israeli government’s plan to uproot settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, Corporal Y. S. who didn’t want to be identified for fear of disciplinary action admitted that he’s considering heeding his rabbi’s call to refuse any withdrawal-related orders. Under the current circumstances, displaying an orange ribbon is itself a punishable offense in the Israeli Defense Forces. For as long as he could remember, Y. S. always knew that he’d enroll in hesder, a five-year commitment that combines army service with yeshiva study. He was attracted by the program’s reputation for producing elite soldiers steeped in the texts and traditions of the Torah. “In hesder,” he explained, “you learn to fight, but you also get a deep understanding and feeling for why you wear the uniform.” However, with his officers and rabbis issuing contradictory orders ahead of the mid-August “disengagement” from Gaza, he’s not sure what duty requires of him. “I believe in the absolute necessity of a disciplined army,” he said. “On the other hand, discipline in the name of an unjust and dangerous cause and I believe that this plan is exactly that undermines the purpose of the army. I don’t want to look back years from now and say that I uprooted Jewish homes in the Land of Israel, that I helped compromise the security of this state, that I was ‘just taking orders.’ ” Following last week’s closure of the Gaza Strip to all nonresidents and the large-scale mobilization of security forces to enforce the policy, the issue of refusal is becoming real for an increasing number of hesder soldiers. Less than a month before the planned start of the disengagement the issue of hesder soldiers’ refusal has become a matter of public debate in Israel. In the past week, a series of events related to the refusal issue have prompted some legislators to question the future of the hesder program. Last week, six soldiers who hail from the hesder yeshiva in Elon Moreh, a West Bank settlement, heeded their rabbi’s call to refuse Gaza-related orders. All face prison time. This week, nine hesder soldiers refused their Gaza-related orders, including two who left their posts and went missing somewhere in Gush Katif, the main Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza. Almost daily, there are reports of defiant soldiers. As political tension in Israel rises, many believe that the threat of refusal will increase. A number of hesder rabbis in West Bank settlements among them Rabbis Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba, Nachum Rabinowitz of Ma’aleh Adumim, and Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh have spoken in favor of refusal. Others have tacitly approved or remained conspicuously silent. In reference to some yeshiva heads’ rulings that soldiers must refuse withdrawal orders, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres lashed out angrily. “Who elected them? What gives them the right to make these judgments?” Peres asked. “They lack the political, moral and legal authority to make such comments. It’s really outrageous.” Israeli officials tried to calm the situation on Monday, while still remaining firm. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced that two of Israel’s former chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, are not immune from prosecution for their rulings in favor of refusal. But Mazuz told reporters that he won’t make Israel’s delicate political situation worse by forcing the issue right now. “It’s a question of what’s good for the public,” Mazuz said. Mazuz reserved the right to pursue a criminal investigation if he deems it necessary, even after the withdrawal has taken place. Similarly, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, met with the heads of the hesder yeshivas to reaffirm his commitment to the hesder program but also to issue a stern warning. “The soldiers of the hesder yeshivas are important to us; we won’t harm the hesder track,” he told them. But, he added, “we can’t ignore the yeshiva heads who called for refusal, and we will deal with them after the disengagement has concluded.” Some hesder moderates worry that an open confrontation between the state and the yeshivas will make reconciliation exceedingly difficult. Ha’aretz reported this week that the head of the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who has been openly critical of the refusal phenomenon, worries that Halutz’s threat will make his moderation appear to be capitulation, rather than a principled position. Cherlow is joined by other moderates in the hesder and national religious camps who have challenged the rulings of rabbis who encourage refusal. Last winter, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the head of the hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, a former Sephardic chief rabbi, ruled that “selective insubordination cannot in this case be countenanced on either moral or halachic grounds.” Nevertheless, Y. S. admitted that he looks up to the soldiers who have already refused and who don’t fear prison. “To me, they’re Jewish heroes,” he said. For the moment, however, he’ll keep the orange ribbon in his pocket.
Hesder soldiers face decision